Stereotypes often contain some measure of truth, of course, and perhaps there is more than the usual allotment of truth in stereotypes about people who keep animals in deplorable conditions. But the filmmakers have taken care to convey the complex reality behind the stories of neglect. As demoralizing as it must be to see animals needlessly, endlessly suffering, the women at the heart of “Free Puppies” manage to show compassion toward the human beings responsible for the suffering, too. “The majority of people are really good people,” Monda says. “It’s just lack of knowledge.”
In the film, the people who best fit this description are two brothers living in the woods in a pair of flea-infested, rat-infested trailers near a junkyard. They are living on disability payments. At least one of them is a Vietnam veteran. So many dogs start barking when Monda and Ruth arrive that the din frequently prevents the men from hearing them speak. Some of the dogs aren’t even theirs. “People drop dogs off here all the time,” one brother explains.
The reason for the number of unwanted dogs isn’t simply isolation or profound poverty. All over the country, people adopt rescue dogs — or buy puppy-mill purebreds — without having any idea of the cost and training that responsible pet ownership involves, and those dogs frequently end up at shelters once they become unmanageable adolescents. But the problem is compounded in rural places where there’s already a huge number of homeless pets and no resources to address the problem. If a stray dog turns up pregnant, kind souls may find homes for the puppies, but if they don’t get the mother dog spayed, and if the puppies don’t get spayed or neutered, the number of unwanted pets explodes.
Economic reality is perhaps the most universal explanation for what is happening in the world of this film. Living paycheck to paycheck, or on a fixed income, puts fencing a yard or paying for veterinary care far out of reach. For such people, even the low-cost clinics highlighted in the film are beyond their means. The animals suffer, even though no cruelty is involved. “Myself, I can’t tell the difference in abuse and neglect,” Ann Brown tells the filmmakers.
When Ruth returns to the trailers in the woods to pick up four more dogs needing vaccines and surgery, the brothers are reluctant to part with their pets, even overnight. “We’re going to take care of your babies,” Ruth promises. “Please,” one of them answers, fighting back tears.
But a nursing mother dog and yet another set of puppies remain with the brothers. They will have to wait for Ruth’s next trip to get their own veterinary care. And, if Ruth can persuade the brothers to let them go, the puppies will be placed in new homes — which may be far from rural Georgia or Tennessee.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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